Nature, Vol.395, No.6700, 395-398, 1998
A protein conjugation system essential for autophagy
Autophagy is a process for the bulk degradation of proteins, in which cytoplasmic components of the cell are enclosed by double-membrane structures known as autophagosomes for delivery to lysosomes or vacuoles for degradation(1-4). This process is crucial for survival during starvation and cell differentiation. No molecules have been identified that are involved in autophagy in higher eukaryotes. We have isolated 14 autophagy-defective (apg) mutants of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae(5) and examined the autophagic process at the molecular level(6-9). We show here that a unique covalent-modification system is essential for autophagy to occur. The carboxy-terminal glycine residue of Apg12, a 186-amino-acid protein, is conjugated to a lysine at residue 149 of Apg5, a 294-amino-acid protein. Of the apg mutants, we found that apg7 and apg10 were unable to form an Apg5/Apg12 conjugate. By cloning APG7, we discovered that Apg7 is a ubiquitin-E1-like enzyme. This conjugation can be reconstituted in vitro and depends on ATP. To our knowledge, this is the first report of a protein unrelated to ubiquitin that uses a ubiquitination-like conjugation system. Furthermore, Apg5 and Apg12, have mammalian homologues, suggesting that this new modification system is conserved from yeast to mammalian cells.